Melanie Rutter was eating dinner with her family when she found out she was among the top five contenders for FISD’s elementary teacher of the year.
Their iPad was propped up, streaming the district’s Facebook Live event, a virtual adaptation for what would usually have been an in-person celebration.
“And then a week later, they announced the winners,” Rutter said, “and again it was around dinnertime and we were all sitting around, and we were just going ‘he just said my name!’ It was amazing.”
Celebratory posters from students fill the wall behind her on a Zoom call. The Vaughn Elementary School teacher teaches science and math to fourth graders. She has been teaching for 19 years, 15 at FISD. Originally intending to teach at the university level, she followed a path to elementary education after volunteering at her own kids’ schools. She had discovered a love of seeing curiosity and excitement at the beginning stages of education. That’s also what keeps her going.
“It's that curiosity and their faces light up, and they make connections with other things,” Rutter said. “Like they discover that math and science really go together. Math is the language of a lot of science. So being around that excitement, it's something new every day.”
Rutter had prepared for her students to use STEAM kits obtained through a grant this year.
“It’s really thinking outside the box when I have not laid out the entire experience for them,” she said. “They have to think about how they can get from their idea to a finished product and problem solve along the way to make sure that finished product comes out the way they want it to.”
Her class never got to use the kits, but they will be open for use next year, she said.
“And I think that's what the world is going to be like for them as they get out,” Rutter said. “They're going to have to problem solve, like for this global pandemic. We had to pivot. Nobody'd had a plan for how to do this exactly, and so we were all working together to try to still meet our vision but change our strategy, and that's thinking outside the box.”
Rutter said the transition to e-learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has led her to do things that she always wanted to learn how to do. She used Zoom calls to contact her students on a regular basis. Meetings began with something fun like a talent show before transitioning to a lesson. Her teaching style includes building a relationship with her students, she said. Through the COVID-19 pandemic, she has missed some of that connection, she said.
“It's very powerful to be right beside them while they're learning,” Rutter said, “and when things don't go right or they make a mistake, it's very powerful to be there and pat them on the back and say, 'hey, this is going to be OK. We're going to learn this together.'”
She visited her homeroom students through porch visits, providing some in-person connection. While maintaining the connection was difficult at first, Rutter said she enjoyed learning how to do so.
“I feel like this has been a very valuable learning experience,” she said.